How Originality Took Tank and the Bangas from a New Orleans Cafe to a Grammy Nomination

Kimberly Ashton
October 26, 2020

At a virtual clinic, Tank and the Bangas talked about their origin, how they come up with such original tunes, and how the pandemic has affected them as a band.

Tank and the Bangas
Image courtesy of the artist

Tarriona “Tank” Ball grew up in a family of New Orleans pastors and says that because of her big voice, everyone assumed she’d follow in the family tradition. But in middle school she discovered slam poetry, and in high school she used that voice to win two National Poetry Slam championships.

After high school, Tank started attending an open mic at Black Star Books & Caffe, where she could combine her poetry with music. There she met future Tank and the Bangas bandmates Joshua Johnson, who is the now band’s drummer and musical director, and Norman Spence, the band’s keyboardist and bassist. Later, Albert Allenback would join on alto saxophone and flute.

In the years since, the band would go on to win NPR’s 2017 Tiny Desk Concert Contest and to earn a 2020 Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. On October 16, the group appeared at a virtual Berklee Visiting Artist Series clinic, moderated by Phil Lima, assistant chair of Berklee’s Voice Department. Over the course of the clinic, which kicked off with a performance of the song “Quiet," Tank and the Bangas shared their origin story, talked about how they come up with such original tunes, and discussed how the pandemic has affected them as a band. Below are edited excerpts from those conversations. 

On Creating a Style of Music That’s Truly Different

Tank: We don’t try to be like anybody. We really are trying to figure out—even though we are Tank and the Bangas—what is Tank and the Bangas? Because it’s not no specific sound. It’s growing, it’s changing, it’s morphing, it’s all these different minds, and everybody is not always on the same wavelength.

Norman Spence: If you know what vibe you want, and you know what you don’t want to sound like, and you know what somebody else already sounds like, just vibe around that.... As far as staying original, stay true to you, stay sincere—I think that’s important.

Alfred Allenback: A lot of our arrangements and stuff comes from Tank’s impulses and the directions her words give. It’s like a roadmap in her melody.

On Finding Lyrics

Tank: I started to realize, “Oh, my goodness, my poems are my lyrics. I keep thinking I don’t got no lyrics because I’ve been a poet this long and I haven’t been a singer this long.”

If you want to go in your texts, or in your notes, or in your journal…you have to remember, you have a phone full of lyrics.

On How the Pandemic Will Affect Music-Making

Allenback: I know that we’ve all doubled-down on our individual production capabilities. We all have Logic; we all work on that stuff. Because this right here is like, this crazy fertile ground. We’ll look back on this. There’s going to be this amazing blossoming in, like, three or four years since everybody made home studios right now. Music is about to get nuts. Music is about to get crazy.”

Joshua Johnson: With the quarantine you learned another thing. You learned how to take a break from it. Because we were working so hard, man, and it was constant, and we were pushing and pushing. But it was like when we actually had that moment to take a break it was almost like a reset.

Tank: With that time alone we have created so many songs.... We’re definitely taking advantage of not being on the road. The only thing that’s changed for us is not being on the road. And we’re so grateful for that because everybody can’t say that’s their only major change in their life. Some people have truly lost family members, some people are truly going through depression and are home alone, some people are truly scared to really even just go to the grocery store. So we’re really lucky to have each other.”

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